Can You Ever Forgive Me? and all the images you see in this review are owned by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Marielle Heller
Have I mentioned that I really like Melissa McCarthy? Because I REALLY like Melissa McCarthy. The Ghostbusters reboot was one of the best movies the year it came out, The Happytime Murders is one of the best films of this year, and I even liked Life of the Party which may not have gotten QUITE as much negativity as the puppet cop movie, but makes up for it in just how quickly everyone seems to have forgotten about it. Now she gets to star in a nice juicy biopic that doesn’t seem to have the over the top comedic tone of her usual output and is instead a much quieter and more character driven film. Hey, it may not be what she’s known for but I have no doubt that she has the acting chops to pull off something much more serious and it’d be even MORE hilarious if she makes a movie that critics fawn over in the same year that they’ve quite harshly rejected everything else she’s done. Does this biopic capture the importance of its subject matter along with giving Melissa McCarthy an interesting role to work with, or will this be a bigger disappointment than Bohemian Rhapsody? Okay, chances are NOTHING could be as disappointing as that, but let’s find out!!
Back in the long ago time of the early nineties, biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) was struggling to make ends meet with whatever profits she made from her earlier books drying up completely and her bitter attitude and sardonic wit making her not very popular in office environments. This is made especially bad because she’s experiencing a rather lengthy bout of writers block and is being stonewalled by her agent (Jane Curtain), so with nothing else to fall back on a sick cat to take care of she starts to pawn off whatever memorabilia she has; including a letter she got from Katherine Hepburn. It seems that letters like this can fetch a nice price from book stores and collectors, though when she just so happens to find two more letters from someone else who is famous she learns that they need to be… spicy as it were to fetch more than a few bucks. Well hold on! She’s a writer, isn’t she? And she writes about famous people already, right? Why, it wouldn’t be THAT hard to just make up some letters in the voice of those famous individuals and use old typewriters with old paper to more or less print money! That will give her enough money to help her sick cat AND keep her drinking habit alive! So she begins her life of crime which not only keeps a roof over her head but gives her a passion for writing that she hasn’t experienced for some time; not to mention giving her a little cash to spoil herself and her friend Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) who eventually joins her to help cover her tracks. How long though can these two keep this scheme of their going before collectors and the authorities start to take a closer look? Even if they can get away with it, will it help Lee understand and maybe even resolve the issues that have been plaguing her life and her writing up to this point? Is it too early to start filling out my Award Card yet? I know we’ve got another two months and I’m NOTORIOUSLY bad at picking winners, but this time I’m feeling lucky!
It’s that time of year where I actually have to start thinking about what movies are the best, as well as the worst, so I really have to focus in on not just how much I liked the movie but what it was trying to accomplish. This movie may not be big and flashy or even have THAT much of a cultural impact outside of a select few, but I think this MIGHT just have a shot on the list because of what it’s ultimately about and how much fun they make it. I’d say that despite some great comedic moments (especially anything involving Richard E Grant) and an ending that kind of pulls its punch a bit from what you’d expect to happen, this is ultimately a sad movie that’s about coming to terms with that, and maybe I just needed to see something like this right now. In a lot of ways I do relate to Miss Israel’s story; less so the crushing poverty that led her to start a criminal forging operation, but more the sort of fear of opening yourself up to anything for fear of rejection and using that tiny scrap of hope to just stay in one place and hope that things will work out in the end. Heck, how many people are gonna seek out a review for a somewhat obscure indie film a month after it has already come out? And yet here I am; plugging away at my computer trying to come up with clever words to say and trying to plan how I’m gonna squeeze in the other four or five movies I have to see before I’m what would be considered “caught up”; by which I mean I would THEN have enough free time to work on something ELSE for the site that very few people will actually read. I mean sure, maybe if I tried doing video reviews which seems to be where all the critics are nowadays or if I was more proactive about pitching ideas to other websites than maybe I can get enough of a spotlight to bring people over here and make ALL this effort worth it, but for now I’m more or less in my own holding pattern. Go to work, see movies, write reviews, and maybe get some sleep. Okay, and also play Age of Empires 3 for like two hours a night, but I’ve got to have SOME vices! Lee’s on the tail end of that cycle to be sure where she’s not just incapable of “playing the game” as it were and just bash out whatever stories she needs to jump start her career, but she’s running out of time to do so with bills piling up and life itself getting harder to face with each and every day. Hopefully I’ll figure SOMETHING out before I get to that point, but they certainly gave me a character who I can relate to which made the rest of the movie that much more engaging to watch.
Oh yeah! There’s a movie I’m reviewing, huh? So how good is it? Well it’s certainly lower key than most films out there right now, even the ones that are SERIOUS OSCAR CONTENDERS as those tend to have pretty bloated budgets and big name actors to back them up. We’ve got Melissa McCarthy to be sure, but when your OTHER big name is Jane Curtain (someone I genuinely ADORE as an actor), you know your film isn’t gonna play at all the multiplexes across the nation. Heck, I don’t even know who Richard E Grant is, but I want to know NOW after seeing him give such a fantastic performance here! Normally Melissa McCarthy is the one called upon to do all the comedy heavy lifting (*cough* Bridesmaids *cough* The Heat *cough*) but here she’s more or less playing the straight person with a sardonic sense of humor and lets Richard E Grant do more of the broad throwing against the wall to see what sticks shtick and it’s very effective here. Sure, he’s not grandiose or over the top to the degree that she is in basically every other movie she’s done (again, this is a rather low key movie), but he really commands the screen whenever he’s on it and it’s clear that his charisma is both the reason why you want to be around him but also his most powerful weapon, so it manages to keep things just tense enough even in the more overtly silly moments. McCarthy as I said plays the straight person and is left to do basically all the dramatic lifting here as she gets across such a nuanced and unconventional character with aplomb.
Now I SAY she’s an unconventional character, but I should clarify that I mean that as far as main characters in Hollywood films; in that she’s an older woman, she’s not really looking for love (even if she does go on a date with someone in the movie) or a late in life adventure, and she’s frankly content to just stay bitter until she dies of alcohol poisoning. And yes, it’s also worth pointing out that she is playing a lesbian in this film which of course brings about the discussion of how authentic it is for a straight woman to play that kind of role, but I thought she handled it just fine; especially in the scenes with the book store owners she tries to date (Dolly Wells) and even Richard E Grant’s character who is gay as well. I think this aspect of the film works as well as it does because of how ingrained her personal issues are to every one of her interactions, so on top of being rather reclusive and depressed she’s ALSO something of an outsider due to her sexuality which I think is what helps her connect so well with Jack (basically the free spirit and sociable side of the same coin) and yet those anxieties also make it hard for her to connect with someone she’s genuinely attracted to; hence why her date goes almost nowhere. Like I said earlier, she’s VERY relatable and that extends not just to the emotional arc she goes on but for how, for lack of a better term, NORMAL she is. She’s not overly clever (at least as far as having believable dialogue instead of “movie dialogue”), she’s not very receptive to change or self-improvement, and even when she discovers a unique skill she has is it’s not one that seems all that astounding. She’s not selling drugs, making millions on shade stock trades, or pulling off a heist of some kind; she’s just making fake memorabilia for a rather insular and niche market. To me, that’s somehow a lot more relatable than watching Jordan Belfort blow cash on prostitutes and helicopter rides; not that that movie isn’t great, but there’s definitely room for both that kind of hedonistic excess and sin by proxy crime film as well as this grounded and quite relatable tale of a normal person who’s done giving a crap.
This is probably a good time to get into the whole “crime” aspect of the story and how the film chooses to portray it. It does have that kind of Pain and Gain feel to it in that you’re watching foolish criminals make obvious mistakes, but unlike that film (which is a damn near a masterpiece in its own right), it’s ire is not for those committing the crime; rather this film paints a very sympathetic portrait of Lee despite how obvious her scheme is and whatever damage it does. To that latter point though, I’m rather mixed on how I should feel about the character independent of how the movie portrays them. Now reproductions, forgeries, and so on are unquestionably a bad thing for any sort of collectors market. It makes all transactions seem that much riskier which can hurt those who have genuine items, and can especially be devastating to whoever was the last person to pay for the darn thing before it’s revealed to be a fake. I understand all of this… but I just couldn’t bring myself to care much in this movie. I mean clearly this is a fictionalized account and I’m sure the real Lee Israel wasn’t as… dramatically compelling I guess, but in the context of this movie and what she really manages to accomplish here, I can only muster so much finger wagging. I don’t know, maybe it’s the collector scene she got into which seems to be mostly rich people for whom a couple hundred bucks is TREAT YOURSELF money instead of MONTH’S RENT money, and having a middle aged queer woman take advantage of that feels, while not quite JUSTIFIED, at least negligibly harmful. Then again, if she DID get away with it then there would have been quite a bit of damage done to historical records as forgeries like these muddy our understanding of the past, so I guess I’m less on the side of “she should have gotten away with it” than I am “not much harm, not much foul”. Why do I bring all this up? Well I sort of got a low key flashback to I, Tonya while watching this because we are talking about someone who did invariably do something terrible who now has a nice shiny biopic that tells it from their side for the most part, and there’s always that feeling of “is this propaganda?” to consider when watching it; even more so than when biopics already try to soften the sharper edges of its subject matter. For me, I SAW it in this, but it didn’t bother me in and of itself; only in a sort of “should I be mad at this?” sense of uncertainty. I mean it’s right there in the title; can we ever forgive her? Well considering this is the first time I’ve heard of it, the movie was entertaining, and the ending kind of tied everything up, I certainly didn’t have much trouble doing so but I guess you’re mileage may vary.
I’m perhaps feeling a bit too kind to this movie considering how nonplussed I’ve been with the movies the last few weeks, but I do think this is a great movie and is just another reason that I really love Melissa McCarthy as an actor. It really cuts to the core for me personally with her character being very familiar to not just myself but to people I know, and I very much enjoyed watching that kind of person essentially Break Bad while still keeping it very grounded. Of course I’m getting to this right as its winding down its theatrical run but if you still have a chance I would definitely suggest going to see it. It’s not big and shiny like a Marvel or Star Wars movie, and it doesn’t have the gravitas that Bohemian Rhapsody does (despite it being an utter train wreck), but I certainly had enough fun with it and it’s probably the best time I’ve had in a theater since… what, Bad Times at the El Royale? Is that even still playing!?